Last year I wrote an article asking why we haven't seen Android thin clients yet, and recently I realized that the platform just isn't suitable for desktop-type use.
Android is cut from the mobile cloth, and that's not something that can be changed easily.
Last week, my attention again turned to Android thin client devices with the announcement of Dell Wyse's Project Ophelia. The device is small, plugs directly into the HDMI port on any display, and uses host power (either via HDMI or USB) to boot up an Android OS that can connect to remote desktops, access corporate Android applications and run traditional Android apps for remote users. Each device is managed by Dell Wyse Cloud Client Manager, which is the company's mobile device management package.
Through my experience with the Google TV-turned-thin client and my reconsideration of the entire use case, I've decided that Android thin clients don't exist because the platform isn't suited to be used as a thin client. Back in 2011, it was more or less assumed that Android would eventually be available on desktop form factors, with full keyboard and mouse support, not to mention the odd peripheral. That hasn't happened, though, despite many attempts at making Android mini-PCs.
What I want to consider is: Even if that happened and we had a good experience with the base OS, what's to be gained from Android thin client devices?
What if: Android on a thin client
A thin client in the traditional sense has dedicated hardware specifically for accessing remote desktops. Today, that means discrete processors for different types of video, protocol-handling and graphics. Thin-client performance is excellent because the device is built to do just one thing.
More on thin client devices
Dell and HP release new thin clients
Dell buys Wyse for thin client device
Using Android as a thin client would step that experience down a notch, possibly more. Using software to do the work instead of hardware consumes resources and -- especially on devices not made for this purpose -- results in a subpar user experience. Cheap Android thin clients certainly wouldn't be all that powerful, which means it would be similar to that of your phone -- and how much do you like your phone for remote desktop access?
You might think that if Android were made with keyboard and mouse support, plus displayed on a big screen, that would be better. That's true, but it wouldn't be as good as a dedicated thin client. Plus, it's another OS that you have to manage somehow. It requires updates and, since it's more customized than Android for smartphones, those updates have to be tested extensively before deployment. Admittedly, this is an advantage that a Dell Wyse device can provide, but other issues remain.
As for the application use case, there's no doubt it would be helpful for using Android apps in a more traditional setting. The problem is that the applications are not developed for that use. They're made for tablets and phones, not desktops with keyboards and mice.
Some of those problems can be solved by whoever is customizing the OS -- making the Android system aware of the Enter key, for instance. (Logitech made this work with the Google TV, but others I've seen do not work.) That only goes so far, though, because the applications are built for touch and gestures, not pointing, clicking and typing.
There is such a long way to go to make Android a viable desktop or thin client platform that it just isn't practical right now. Perhaps Wyse or other companies will change that, but even they can only do so much. Android is cut from the mobile cloth, and that's not something that can be changed easily.
This was first published in January 2013